Pre-Code Crazy: Red Headed Woman (1932)

Red-Headed Woman is one of my very favorite pre-Codes, starring one of my very favorite actresses, Jean Harlow.

So why haven’t I devoted a post to this film before now? Beats the heck outta me! But better late than really, really late, I always say.

Red-Headed Woman tells the story of Lil Andrews (Harlow), a working gal who’s got more on her mind than dictation, if you know what I mean. Specifically, her mind is focused on her very-much-married boss, Bill Legendre (Chester Morris), who, like most of the men in this film, is unable to resist Lil’s unique charms. Ultimately, Lil manages to seduce Bill, break up his happy union, get him to marry her, make her way up the local social ladder (or, at least the first few rungs), have a couple of affairs, and even commit attempted murder – all in less than 80 minutes.

But it’s not the crazy, twisty-turny, action-packed plot that made me fall in love with Red-Headed Woman – although that’s certainly enough! Instead, it’s the characters populating the film that make this one of those movies I can watch over and over (and over!) again. And I do!

Here’s what I mean:

Lil learns that Bill is a leg man.

Lil learns that Bill is a leg man.

Lil Andrews Legendre (Jean Harlow)

We’re introduced to Lil through a series of vignettes at the very start of the film, and they provide some valuable insight into her persona. In one scene, she’s in a dressmaker’s shop, trying on a frock. She strikes a pose, asking the saleswoman if she can see through her dress. When the woman reluctantly replies in the affirmative, Lil flashes a grin. “I’ll wear it,” she says. And in another scene, we’re treated only to the sight of Lil’s gams as she cuts a photo from a newspaper. Turns out it’s a picture of her boss, which she promptly fits into a small frame on her garter belt. “Well, it’ll get me more there than it will hanging on the wall,” she philosophizes.

Bill Legendre (Chester Morris)

As one character said, Bill Legendre was “crazy” about his wife. But as Lil herself rejoined, “He’s a man isn’t he?” And, boy, does Bill prove her right. One minute, he’s off-handedly attempting to dismiss Lil from his house; the next, he’s agreeing to let her help him with his mail; and the next – well, let’s just say that he’s not exactly having Lil file his papers. One look at Lil’s legs and Bill seems to lose all of his senses – he can barely even finish a sentence. And, later, when he tells Lil, “I love my wife! I’ve never loved anyone else!” – he seems to be trying to convince himself as much as he is Lil.

Sally was always there when Lil needed a listening ear.

Sally was always there when Lil needed a listening ear.

Sally (Una Merkel)

Sally was Lil’s ace boon coon, her BFF, her sister from another mister. Although Sally never ceased to be shocked at Lil’s antics, she always had Lil’s back and, like a true friend, she never hesitated to tell Lil when she was crossing the line. Like the time Lil swiped a stack of mail from the desk of Bill Legendre’s secretary so she could take it to Bill’s house. Sally was right by her side all the way, but when Lil confessed her nervousness as they approached the house, Sally didn’t bite her tongue. “I’d be nervous myself,” she quipped, “if I didn’t have any more brains than you’ve got.”

Irene Legendre (Leila Hyams)

Irene, Bill’s wife, is quite an interesting woman. Early in the film, she discovers Bill engaging in some sort of (off-camera) shenanigans with Lil. Irene is justifiably upset – tearful and hurt. But the first words out of her mouth are these: “I might have understood – if it hadn’t been a girl like that.” So what’s that supposed to mean? If she’d caught Bill smooching some society dame, or doing the horizontal hokey pokey with last season’s most popular debutante, it would’ve been okay? That she’s only offended by Bill’s taste in sidepieces? Tut, tut, Irene – your snobbery is showing. But don’t get me wrong – I actually dig Irene. She turns out to be strong and determined, yet forgiving and loving – but not stupid. I like that in a dame.

William Legendre, Sr., had Lil's number.

William Legendre, Sr., had Lil’s number.

William Legendre, Sr. (Lewis Stone)

Bill’s dad is one of the few men in the movie who seems immune to Lil’s allure – he sees through Lil like she’s made out of cellophane. When he gets wind of his son’s one-night stand, he first tries to get rid of Lil by shipping her off to Cleveland. “It’s going to be a lot easier for my son without you in this town,” he tells her. His initial effort to remove Lil from Bill’s life doesn’t work, but trust me – he’s no quitter.

Aunt Jane (May Robson)

Outspoken and opinionated, Irene’s aunt is the pre-incarnation of two characters from one of my favorite films, The Women: Norma Shearer’s mother (Lucile Watson) and one of her best pals (Pauline Goddard). Like these women, Aunt Jane chides Irene for divorcing Bill when he found himself in Lil’s clutches: “However you came to make that idiotic blunder is beyond me,” Aunt Jane wonders. “You’d have stood by Bill if he’d gone broke or had the smallpox or some other awful calamity had befallen him. Well, he’s sick now! Or insane. Or whatever you choose to call it.”

Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson)

Gaerste is a longtime friend of the Legendre family, and literally old enough to be Lil’s grandpa – but that doesn’t prevent him from falling under her spell. To his credit, he falls before he’s aware that Lil is Bill’s wife, but by the time he discovers that bit of info, he’s hooked. Actually, Gaerste is a pretty pathetic character – Lil leads him around like a puppy on a leash, first blackmailing him into aiding her social climbing aspirations, and later carrying on an affair with him in the Big Apple. Like Bill, Gaerste is like putty in Lil’s hands: “You’re so beautiful,” he sighs. “What’s the use?”

If you like your pre-Codes hot and your pre-Code women hotter, then be sure to catch Red-Headed Woman, August 7th on TCM. You. Will. Not. Be. Sorry.


Now be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!

~ by shadowsandsatin on August 3, 2016.

12 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: Red Headed Woman (1932)”

  1. great choice — great review !

  2. Lil is outrageous. She’s sneaky and dishonourable. In the real world I don’t think we would be friends. Why do I root for her?

  3. Now, I never have been able to get into JH. It’s the eyebrows, I think! 🙂 I’m a 30’s nut (I could give a hang about the code either way), but for some reason I could never ‘get’ her. That said, this is a spunky bit of fun, in spite of the fact that we REALLY have to imaging the red here, hahaha. A 30’s picture really has to be bad for me to not enjoy it, so this one really has, as would be apopropriate to say, “a leg up”. 🙂

  4. […] she was also a standout in two of my favorite features from the era: Men Call It Love (1931) and Red-Headed Woman (1932). Hyams started her career as a model, retired in 1936, and was married for 50 years to agent […]

  5. […] My next film, Red-Headed Woman, stars Jean Harlow in the title role of a social-climbing woman who does whatever it takes (from home-wrecking to gunplay) to reach the heights to which she’s striving. You can read more about the movie here. […]

  6. Dear Karen,

    I was just wondering if you know whether or not you’ll be able to participate in the “Singing Sweethearts Blogathon.” If you find that you will be able to participate, please let me know so I can put you down on the roster! I believe I mentioned it to you in a previous comment, and I would like very much to know if you will be able to participate.

    If you need any suggestions, I would be glad to give some. As I said in my last comment, you could write about one of Jeanette’s Pre-Code films, or “The Phantom of the Opera” from 1943, since it features Nelson Eddy.

    Please let me know if you can participate. The blogathon is drawing near, and I have few participants, so I would greatly appreciate a contribution from you.

    Many thanks and good wishes!


    Rebekah Brannan

  7. […] given to me by a friend for my birthday last year, with great anticipation, since the 1932 film Red-Headed Woman, starring Jean Harlow, is one of my favorite pre-Codes. And I wasn’t disappointed. The story, in […]

  8. […] practically overflowing with first-rate noir and pre-Code offerings, including Safe in Hell (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932), Baby Face (1933), Dinner at Eight (1933), Out of the Past (1947), They Live By Night […]

  9. […] Harlow stars as Lil Andrews, the social-climbing man-stealer of the film’s title. There’s never a dull moment in this one, which features some of my favorite pre-Code performers: […]

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